A Legacy of Spies

The other year, in preparation for a novel I hoped would have more intrigue and action than I was used to writing, I decided to break with my comfort zone and read a few spy novels to deconstruct the genre and see how the action was set up and paced. I’d read a James Bond novel once and was less than impressed; the movies I loved so much were horribly dull novels, and the book-Bond looked much more like Truman Capote than any pretty-boy actor.

I didn’t want to waste time, so I Googled “best spy novels”, and one of the top two on almost every list was John LeCarré’s 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, so that was the one I read first.

The lists were right. The book was brilliant, and I couldn’t put it down. After that I rushed out to watch the 2012 BBC film version, an incredible cast including Toby Jones, Gary Oldman, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Hurt, Tom Hardy, and more – which was still excellent, though some people prefer the 1979 mini-series adaption with Alec Guinness (that’s Obi Wan Kenobi to some of you). The strangest part was that, while reading the book, I had already cast Toby Jones in one of the roles in my head  –  but as Peter Guillam, though, not Percy Alleline as he was in the film.

Why so good? Well, see – like Ian Fleming, John LeCarré (real name: David Cornwell; spies aren’t allowed to use their real names to publish novels) was an actual British spy in World War II, so he knows the ins and outs and tiny little details of how the game is played, layers upon layers of secrets and trades and double-dealings. He’s lived it first hand, and that makes all the believable difference. He began writing novels in 1961 (Call for the Dead), but it wasn’t until his third novel in 1963, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, that he hit the best-seller list and wound up quitting MI6 (the British Secret Intelligence Service) to pursue writing full time.

While all of us sit here and think, why would you quit being an awesome spy to write books?

But LeCarré certainly is good at it, with more than 24 novels to his name, almost all of them best-sellers. Several have been made into successful film adaptions, including The Constant Gardener (2005), starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965) starring Richard Burton, and the recent delicious adaption of The Night Manager (2016), starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie, a book that reads more like a James Bond adaption than a Bond novel does.

Unable to sit still in retirement, LeCarré, now 86, has pumped out yet another novel last year, A Legacy of Spies, a conclusion of sorts for George Smiley’s people, his ex-agent who keeps coming back. Pulling his best-loved characters from so many of his novels, LeCarré manages to weave them together with new characters in present-day, finding new depths and bringing new truths to light, even after 50 years. LeCarré shows that time has not diminished him nor his characters, and if you think you know how it will end, like all of his works, it’s pretty well guaranteed you don’t.

Give le Carré a try. If you like mystery, espionage, intrigue, and unraveling puzzles with characters who won’t let you go, then you’ll love his work. If you haven’t tried him, he’s a wonderful place to begin to explore the genre. For modern novels, he’s rather clean, without a lot of graphic violence or sex or language, perhaps making the stories even more remarkable. Start with Legacy of Spies and work backward, or start at the beginning and work forward. If you prefer to watch rather than read, there are more than ten films, five television adaptions, and four radio plays to keep you entertained. You’ll be so glad you did.

Torchwood Comes to CPL

Wallpaper-torchwood-855134_1024_768Back in 1987, when I started watching a strange little British science-fiction children’s TV show called Dr. Who, it was barely known in the U.S. I actually had to pull it in from Canada, which meant a tipsy Rube Goldberg contraption of raising my TV up high, attaching tinfoil to the antenna, wires to the tin foil, a coat hanger, and all this thrown out the third-story window, because my dorm room was on the opposite side from all the TV signals. Merchandising was rare, usually imported, and extremely expensive.

Fast forward to 2005. After several years of spotty specials, Dr. Who is brought back to life with actor Christopher Eccleston in the lead role (you might know him from Gone in 60 Seconds, or Thor: The Dark World). This time the BBC has actually put money into it, and it is by far some of the best produced, best-written television out there. Period. And among the recurring companions was the role of Captain Jack Harkness, a mysterious immortal figure from the future, played by actor John Barrowman. Jack Harkness was such a strong character the BBC gave Jack Harkness his own spin-off in 2006, Torchwood (which, by the way, is an anagram for Doctor Who). In American, think X-Files.

imagesThe Torchwood Institute is set up as a present-day agency hunting present-day aliens that threaten (mostly) London and Wales. It is based in Cardiff, Wales, and headed by Captain Jack Harkness, a former Time Agent who operates above the law, with powerful technology at his hands. When police officer Gwen Cooper (Eve Miles) stumbles onto the secret lair of Torchwood, she won’t stop investigating, until finally Harkness allows her to join them. It takes Gwen quite a bit to get used to everything going on around her, sworn to secrecy, which puts her at odds with her fiance Rhys, who thinks she’s going batty. She’s never quite sure if Jack is on the side of Earth or not, and it takes her a long time to trust him (partly because at the beginning he keeps trying to slip her drugs to make her forget). Sometimes Jack does seem to have an evil side, but really he’s more of a devout neutral, weighing the balance of what’s right and what’s wrong in each situation. Sometimes you love him, and, after the Children of Earth storyline, you understand his reasoning but you truly want to hate him.

Torchwood is NOT a children’s show, and was never meant to be. It was meant as an adult show. It is at times tough and gritty, and it deals with some very adult themes and morals, including nudity and violence, besides some episodes being as creepy as the best horror films. Although Jack Harkness would make guest appearances on Dr. Who, Dr. Who never appears in Torchwood (beyond the sound of his ship in the background for one episode), specifically to emphasize that they did not want children crossing over to the other show.

I urge you to give the series a try. It is unlike anything on American TV. Especially check out the episodes Countrycide, Captain Jack Harkness, and Dead Man Walking. If you have a high tolerance for anger and horror, watch the Children of Earth storyline.

Torchwood is a wonderful series, less science-fiction than horror, with a lot of drama thrown in. I’ve met both Eve Miles and John 2606230-captain_jack_harknessBarrowman; they are a delight in person and their on-screen charisma is authentic. Barrowman, a die-hard joker and pain in the neck, had no problem with the nudity on the show, and often used it to shock his castmates; if they look horrified on screen, it just might be an authentic look from something Barrowman had done just as the cameras started to roll. Barrowman is well-known in England, a decent singer of his own with several albums, and was one of the judges of the British version of America’s Got Talent. He can currently be seen on Arrow. Burn Gorman (Owen) has also become a familiar face, in everything from The Dark Knight Rises to Game of Thrones, Pacific Rim, Alexander and the Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, to a current run on the AMC series Turn: Washington’s Spies.

CPL has the entire run of Torchwood on both DVD and Blu-ray. Check it out, and its wonderful cast of talented stars!